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July 11, 2009

Torchwood, kids, grownups and science fiction

This post is really more about kids as characters in science fiction than it is about Torchwood itself, but as it contains what some people might call 'spoilers', I thought I'd hide it behind a cut.

On Tuesday, Sam Woolaston reviewed the first episode of Torchwood Children of Earth for the Guardian . For those of you who haven't seen the show: in a sort of inter-galactic protection racket, aliens demand 10% of the world's children or they'll release a deadly flu virus. It starts spookily, as the aliens first make contact with Earth by talking through the children. Kids all over the world stand still and chant. Kids, that is, plus a middle aged chap called Clem who lives in a nursing home. The drama of this unfolded over five consecutive nights in a sort of event TV mini-series I'm sure has only really been made possible by BBC's iplayer. Anyway, what Woolaston choose to say about the first episode:

post-watershed is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, it can be a bit scarier than Doctor Who (I knew about the connection, but am I the only one who's only just realised Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who?). It can be a little edgier too, with the odd same-sex snog, so you can pretend you're watching something grown-up. But it's a shame the kids are missing out, given that this one is about children.

I suppose this sort of response was fair enough. Images of kids generally mean kid's content and science fiction, whatever its theme, is often seen as childish. Plus, Woolaston can score a couple of cheap liberal brownie points by implying the watershead is a bit over-protective and kids should be allowed to watch big telly events along with everyone else.

However, I want to contrast the above quote with a line from Torchwood itself (episode five). Because watching young people on screen isn't always for the kids themselves (and to head one particular hot potato off at the start, I don't mean because such images are sexualised).

Kid, peeking a look at a tv-stream of another child plugged up to a sort of alien drug-lab: 'I want to see'. His mum: 'No darling, this is for grown ups'.

This kid later gets seriously tortured and killed as the climax to the plot. Blood pouring out the ears, shaking uncontrollably and everything: in many ways, it really was 'for grown ups' (or at least behind the sofa stuff). In fact, he was only one of the children who we see sacrificed by adults during the course of the five episodes. There were also kids shot by their father to spare them a worse fate at the hands of aliens. Other quite adult takes on children, childhood or childishness ran throughout all five of the episodes. There was Clem, the man who spoke with the children, who remained in a sort of semi-childish state (and was largely spoken to by adults as such), playful, scared, occasionally inarticulate and haunted by the memories of his 1960s childhood. We saw one of the chief male protagonists dropping in to visit a niece and nephew he rarely saw, dolling out fivers, at first thinking about how he could use his relationship with them, later worrying about their safety and how he could be of help to them. We saw political discussions about the difference between the 'nice kids' we know, and all 'those ones hanging around on street corners'. The alien's reminded the humans that we all let child-suffering happen every day, as long as it's out of sight.

Early on, the main female character learns she is pregnant; later she contemplates abortion. There are also various games of inter-generational relationships played with the main character, Captain Jack (who can never die and hardly seems to age), and a woman we soon discover is his daughter, despite looking the same age as him. 'We don't like having you around Dad', she tells him, 'because you make us feel old'. I also think it is significant that a large part of the plot surrounds a (cover) story of inoculations. There is an MMR narrative woven in here, or at least one based on worries about whether or not to give your child immunisations. MMR: one of the biggest child-orientated news stories of recent years, at least in terms of the UK press. Played out largely in adult media and, at the end of the day, based on adult decisions/ predictions over the future of their children's health.

Arguably, a lot of recent Dr Who (i.e. since Russell T Davies got his hands on it) has treated child characters with such an adult view. Aimed at a family audience, you'd perhaps expect kid characters in Dr Who, at least they don't surprise so much as they did in Torchwood. But I have noticed that they tend to be very passive: minds which get taken over by aliens, the significance we largely see from adult reactions of shock and horror. This is in sharp contrast with the on T-Davies spin-off series which is actually aimed directly at kids, the Sarah Jane Adventures, where child characters do have active roles, voice opinions and drive the plot themselves and adults-minds are more likely to be controlled by aliens. You don't view the kids so much in Sarah Jane, as much as you view the world through them. In contrast, in Who stories such as The Empty Child, Fear Her or School Reunion, children are largely there to be seen, rather than actively heard.

But put this in a larger context: this recent Torchwood mini-series shows that the kids in science fiction can be a very adult affair. Of course, PD James did this all years ago with Children of Men (see also Alfonso Cuarón's slight reinterpretation in film). Indeed, Mary Shelly did it first. (Seriously, you thought Frankenstein is about the progress of science? Rubbish, it's all about the responsibility of having kids.) As I think Torchwood's semi-topical references to flu outbreaks and MMR suggest, this is as true for stories of science-fact as it is science fiction.

In all of this I'm not trying to argue that children shouldn't have been allowed to stay up passed the watershed to watch Torchwood. Indeed, you could quite cynically read this storyline as the beeb trying to get a broader audience for the show with its move to BBC1 with a 'family' theme. If anything, my point is that the boundaries between 'kids stuff' and 'for grown ups' are both fluid and complex. Children are part of adult culture. Reflecting upon childhood (our own and others) is as much part of being an adult as thinking about grown-up lives is part of being a kid.

July 3, 2009

history of science communication

I’m at the British Society for the History of Science annual conference this week (running a session on Horrible Science and Horrible Histories tomorrow).

As ever, it’s a great conference. Today was especially exciting for me as it was full of history of science communication. This morning we had a whole session on the history of the Science Museum (after all, it was their birthday last week).

We heard all about the motivations for building Children’s Gallery in the 1930s (largely to stop kids distracting grownups), the continual issues surrounding class politics between the museum and its visitors (e.g. suggesting they bring in a fee, so as to keep the ‘hooligan element’ of schoolboys from distracting serious children). I also learnt about a 1975 Science and Islam exhibition (one of the first to charge admission, though it’s not clear why), the role played by Science Museum’s library in 1940s war effort and why the Science Museum did so badly for post-war building works compared to other national museums. Not to mention the long and complex history of relationships with Energy Industry. It's not just about BP's sponsorship of the Energy Gallery. All fascinating stuff (though I do admit I’m a bit of a Science Museum history geek).

In the afternoon, I went to a session on film. This started off with a great paper from Tim Boon (author of this book), on Julian Huxley. He showed us a clip from Huxley’s (Oscar-winning) film ‘The Private Life of the Gannets’ and told us the fascinating story of Huxley’s 1929 trip to British East Africa. This was supposedly to show African schoolchildren his film, but Boon suggested Huxley took they whole project largely as a way of promoting the role of biology education in the UK.

We then had a couple of presentations based around the film achieves at the Media Archive for Central England (MACE), aiming to convince historians of science to make more of the non-fiction film archives scattered across the country. We saw some fascinating vox-pops (of people outside a cigarette factory just after the RCP report linking smoking to cancer), and a few interview with scientists. Watching these clips and Boon's paper I couldn't help but start playing fantasy PhD thesis: a history of cancer reporting; tensions of nationalism and local cultural identity in national/ local science reporting; the role of women in science filmmaking; the increasing television-literacy of scientists; a history of scientific visualisation on screen (fantastic shot of a 3d map starting the Huxley movie, and some lovely 30s microscopy films).

These are only a snippet of the possible stories bursting to be told from these rich archives. To keep everything on a kids and science focus, I also think there’s a fantastic PhD to be written on the history of children’s science television, and Boon pointed out what a peach of a PhD topic the early history of schools-films would be. More PhDs on the history of science communication, that’s what I say.